Friday, September 14, 2012

A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down, \ Speak of thee - Longfellow's Michelangelo

Longfellow translated eight Michelangelo Buonarroti poems – I do not know when – which are among my favorite Longfellow poems.  Longfellow’s achievement is not exactly unique since a number of poets have made good English poems out of Michelangelo.  Perhaps Michelangelo is easy to translate.  I doubt that.

This is what Longfellow’s Michelangelo sounds like.  Perhaps it is worth noting that the poems Longfellow worked on are (I think) all from late in the artist’s life, when he is in his sixties or older.


Lady, how can it chance – yet this we see
  In long experience – that will longer last
  A living image carved from quarries vast
  Than its own maker, who dies presently?

Cause yieldeth to effect if this so be,
  And even Nature is by Art surpassed;
  This know I, who to Art have given the past,
  But see that Time is breaking faith with me.

Perhaps on both of us long life can I
  Either in color or in stone bestow,
  By now portraying each in look and mien;
So that a thousand years after we die,
  How fair thou wast, and I how full of woe,
  And wherefore I so loved thee, may be seen.

Already by the sixteenth century the conceit that art can overcome mortality is an antique.  How much extra juice it gets when expressed by 1) an actual artist, who may at the moment of the poem’s composition be sculpting the woman’s form, and 2) an actual artist of the stature of Michelangelo who in fact can grant a sort of eternal fame to his subjects, I will leave to the individual reader.  The biggest jolts for me come in poems like the one about painting the Sistine Chapel (“I’ve already grown a goiter at this drudgery”*) and a few others that seem to refer to well-known sculptures.  Why deny the biographical pleasures of seeing the behind-the-scenes glimpses the artist chooses to represent?

More commonly Michelangelo uses his profession as a source of metaphors and images and themes.   Thus the old sculptor compares the fire he uses to “mould \ The iron of his preconceived design” to the “fortunate fire that burns \ Within me still” (“Fire”), or worries that art (“an idol and a king to me”) has lost its meaning (“Painting and sculpture satisfy no more”) as his death nears (“Old Age”).

That lament is universal, it seems.  Even Michelangelo feels that he has frittered away his life:

Ah me! ah me! when thinking of the years,
The vanished years, alas, I do not find
Among them all one day that was my own!  (“Canzone”)

I find this reassuring for some reason.

All right.  That’s Longfellow’s Michelangelo:

A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down,
  Speak of thee, nor to thee could Heaven convey,
  Except through death, a refuge and a crown.  (“To Vittoria Colonna,” but a different poem than the one above)

*  Translation by James M. Saslow, The Poetry of Michelangelo (Yale UP, 1991), brilliant, essential.

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